WASHINGTON — During World War II, the FBI took Lorraine Bannai’s parents and grandparents from their homes in California and imprisoned them in Manzanar, an internment camp for Japanese Americans.
Bannai, a law professor at Seattle University, wants to make sure that never happens again. So does Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday reviewed Feinstein’s bill, the Due Process Guarantee Act, which would ban the indefinite detention of Americans.
Feinstein, who introduced her bill late last year, stressed the need for protection of all permanent residents of the United States. The legislation stipulates that no military action or declaration of war can authorize the indefinite detention of any permanent U.S. resident – citizens and green card holders – without charge or trial.
“A regime of indefinite detention degrades the credibility of our great nation around the globe,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the committee.
The legislation is a response to the National Defense Authorization Act, enacted last year. That law includes some controversial provisions that grant the president the power to indefinitely detain Americans considered terrorists in the eyes of the government. Leahy, who co-sponsored the bill along with a number of senators from both sides of the aisle, called the provisions “troubling.”
Reading his testimony from an iPad, Rep. Jeff Landry, R-La., said he had garnered bipartisan support in the House for a bill similar to Feinstein’s. Landry regards himself as a “loyal member” of the Tea Party. But he appeared to be in sync with liberal Feinstein, emphasizing that the 2011 defense bill left too much ambiguity.
That uncertainty could “allow the president to deprive citizens of the writ of Habeas Corpus,” which would be unacceptable, Landry said.
Justice Department attorney Steven Bradbury said Feinstein’s bill would create practical obstacles for national security. Homegrown terrorists, he said, can work with foreign terrorist groups, and the due process bill would make it more difficult for the U.S. to act against them.
But Feinstein said she has seen no evidence that a ban on indefinite detention would inhibit counterterrorism efforts.
Cases of American citizens collaborating with al-Qaida are rare, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Graham doesn’t condone torture, but he said that when the military captures terrorists, it should be able to hold them for a period of time before they are charged. A moment like that is a “golden opportunity to find out what the enemy’s up to in future attacks,” he said.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the bill would infringe on the power of the executive branch and president’s ability to pursue terrorists. Altering the balance of power in the branches of government would be unconstitutional, he said.
“Under this bill, we would be…in a twilight zone of uncertainty,” Grassley said.
Without the presidential ability to indefinitely detain citizens, he said, the country could face a harrowing national security threat in a future war.
Feinstein has no doubt about the need for the due process legislation. Recalling a childhood visit to Tanforan, a racetrack south of San Francisco that served as an internment camp in World War II, Feinstein said the detention of American citizens of Japanese descent would have been prevented with a guarantee of due process. Lorraine Bannai urged lawmakers to remember that history as they decided whether to support the bill.
“We are now confronted with new fears against new peoples,” Bannai said. “While we do need to ferret out and prosecute criminal conduct, we need to do so in a way that preserves our system of laws.”
Leahy hopes to persuade all Senators to support the bill. The only way to guarantee due process for all Americans, he said, is if Feinstein’s legislation becomes law. But the debate will carry on: as Graham got ready to leave, he declared the discussion, “to be continued.”